Foreign Press 'Punished' for Photographing Defendants
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, September 10 (Compass) -- Taliban authorities arrested 35 more Afghan aid workers over the weekend, bringing the total to more than 50 Afghans jailed by the strict Islamist regime since early August on suspicion of aiding covert Christian missionary work.
According to international aid workers who asked not to be identified, at least 35 Afghans employed by the recently banned International Assistance Mission (IAM) were taken into custody at the Planning Ministry office in Kabul when they came to get their salary payment.
Quoted yesterday by Associated Press (AP), the sources said a state-run radio broadcast had ordered Afghan staffers of IAM to come and collect their pay at the Planning Ministry, which coordinates all foreign aid organizations.
"When the Afghans showed up, they were arrested," AP reported.
In a separate report from the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), an expatriate aid worker said she knew of some 15 to 17 Afghan employees of IAM who had been arrested by the Taliban's religious police since the Christian relief group was shut down on August 31.
"I do not know the reason for their arrest," the aid worker told APP, "but they were taken into custody during the first week of September and have not been seen since then."
The Taliban have not yet confirmed or commented on the reported detentions.
A private volunteer agency that had 117 professionals from 17 countries working in five cities of Afghanistan, IAM had employed some 300 Afghans in its projects of health, economic development, education and rehabilitation. Its entire foreign staff was expelled from the country 10 days ago.
The Taliban have accused IAM and another Christian agency, SERVE, of links with the Shelter Now relief organization, shut down in early August for allegedly trying to convert Muslim Afghans to Christianity. The regime's religious police arrested eight foreigners and 16 Afghans working for Shelter Now.
Speaking from Kabul today, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told Compass that their office had no "precise information at this moment" about the alleged arrest of 35 Afghan IAM staff.
Following established procedure, the Red Cross had last month informed the Taliban of their readiness, "upon the regime's invitation," to visit Shelter Now's 16 Afghan detainees. A similar offer had been extended on behalf of the Christian relief group's foreign detainees, eventually visited by the ICRC on August 25.
"But so far, we haven't been called for the Afghans," the representative said.
A senior Taliban official told Associated Press last week that some of the 16 Afghans working for Shelter Now would be either sentenced to life in jail or death by hanging. Those most endangered, local sources said, were the Afghans involved in teaching the local languages to the foreigners.
According to the Taliban's deputy minister of religious police, any Afghan convicted of converting to Christianity would be given three days to recant and return to Islam. But even if spared the death penalty for repenting, the official said, the defendant would still face other punishments for "betraying their religion and traditions."
Taliban Minister for Vice and Virtue Mohammed Wali declared that the Afghans must be charged "because they must have known what these foreigners were doing, and they did not report them."
Although the Taliban claim to have "strong evidence" that Shelter Now's foreign staff were preaching Christianity, they have not presented proof that any Afghans had actually converted.
Taliban officials continue to sidestep the death penalty possibility which hangs over both the foreigners and their Afghan workers, stating that once a verdict is reached, the punishment will be decided "according to the principles of Islamic law."
"If the crime is worthy of imprisonment, they will be imprisoned," Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib of the Taliban Supreme Court told Afghan Islam Press (AIP) last week. "If the crime is worthy of hanging, they will be hanged."
FOREIGN MEDIA UNDER HOTEL ARREST
Meanwhile, some 12 foreign journalists covering the Kabul trial of the eight foreign Christians were barred yesterday from leaving their hotel, and their rooms were searched for cameras, film and videos.
Taliban authorities said the journalists were being punished for taking photographs of the foreign defendants when they appeared in court the previous day. It was the first time the six women and two men had appeared in public since they were taken into custody, although a few diplomatic and family visits have been permitted.
Although both still and video filming of people is technically banned by the Taliban, the rules are usually relaxed for major news stories. Several of the reporters' official Afghan interpreters were also detained, reportedly for failing to stop their foreign charges from taking pictures.
The four Germans, two Australians and two Americans under investigation were accompanied by several relatives and a diplomatic representative from each of their countries to the court on September 8, where for the first time they heard the charges filed against them.
"We have not had a chance to defend ourselves," declared German George Taubmann, Shelter Now's Afghanistan director and one of the eight prisoners. "It is simply not true. We have not converted anybody. We are shocked about all the accusations."
With the press corps confined to Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, it was unclear whether any of the Afghan or foreign detainees had been brought before the Supreme Court yesterday or today. Taliban authorities, who declared the Afghan "suspects" would be tried separately, have not said whether they would be called to give evidence against their foreign employers at the first trial.
Although the majority of media coverage has focused on the fate of the eight expatriate Christians, a U.N. official told Reuters last week, "We are more concerned about the Afghan staff of SNI." The international body has called for a fair trial in which justice will be done for "all 24 of the accused foreign and Afghan aid workers."
According to United Nations' figures, some 250 foreign aid workers are overseeing relief operations that employ at least 20,000 Afghans across the country.
With jobs scarce and local income averaging $4 per month, Afghans have until now coveted the chance to work for Western aid organizations. But last month's crackdown against foreigners has made Afghans nervous about even being seen in public with any foreigner, according to Kabul-based aid workers.
"Friendship with infidels is forbidden," Chief Justice Saqib intoned during his sermon at Friday prayers in Kabul's Pul-e-Khishti mosque on September 7. The judge sternly warned the Muslim faithful to stay away from non-Muslim "infidels," declaring they were evil and trying to destroy their faith.
Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.